Lone Wolf Sullivan is a writer, songwriter, and studio musician.

Wednesday, May 27, 2009

A Night at the Opera (1935) * * *

Wealthy dowager Mrs. Claypool (Margaret Dumont) is dining by herself at a classy restaurant in Milan, Italy. She complains to the waiter that her date hasn't arrived and it is too late to dine. When she has Otis B. Driftwood (Groucho Marx) paged, thinking she has been stood up, Driftwood turns around from the table behind her and complains to the boy for calling out his name so loudly throughout the restaurant: "Do I go around yelling your name?"

The entrepreneur and swindler has just finished a meal with a beautiful blonde, with his back facing toward his dignified benefactress. She protests being stood up: "I've been sitting right here since 7 o'clock." The shifty con-man turns the tables on her, berating her for sitting with her back to him all evening: "Yes, with your back to me. When I invite a woman to dinner, I expect her to look at my face. That's the price she has to pay."

Turning back to his own table, he gets the expensive dinner bill and exclaims: "$9.40? This is an outrage!" and hands the bill to the blonde: "If I were you I wouldn't pay it!" After totally alienating Mrs. Claypool, he joins her at her table. It is now too late for dinner, so he asks the waiter for a breakfast meal.

Driftwood: Waiter. Have you got any milk-fed chicken?
Waiter: Yes.
Driftwood: Well, squeeze the milk out of one and bring me a glass.

Driftwood has been hired to bring Mrs. Claypool into high society, but she complains that he has done nothing to help her. Driftwood attempts to flatter her and get out of his predicament, explaining that he was dining with the blonde at the next table because of her likeness to Mrs. Claypool:

Mrs. Claypool: Mr. Driftwood, three months ago you promised to put me into society. In all that time, you've done nothing but draw a very handsome salary.
Driftwood: You think that's nothing, huh? How many men do you suppose are drawing a handsome salary nowadays? Why, you can count them on the fingers of one hand, my good woman.
Mrs. Claypool: I'm not your good woman!
Driftwood: Don't say that, Mrs. Claypool. I don't care what your past has been. To me, you'll always be my good woman. Because I love you. There. I didn't mean to tell you, but you...you dragged it out of me. I love you.
Mrs. Claypool: It's rather difficult to believe that when I find you dining with another woman.
Driftwood: That woman? Do you know why I sat with her?
Mrs. Claypool: No.
Driftwood: Because she reminded me of you.
Mrs. Claypool: Really?
Driftwood: Of course, that's why I'm sitting here with you. Because you remind me of you. Your eyes, your throat, your lips! Everything about you reminds me of you. Except you. How do you account for that? If she figures that one out, she's good.
Mrs. Claypool: Mr. Driftwood. I think we'd better keep everything on a business basis.
Driftwood: How do you like that? Every time I get romantic with you, you want to talk business. I don't know, there's something about me that brings out the business in every woman.

Driftwood promises to promote Mrs. Claypool's entry into high society if she invests $200,000 of her money in the New York Opera Company. He both woos and insults her in his promotion, saying, "Don't you see, you'll be a patron of the opera. You'll get into society. Then, you can marry me and they'll kick you out of society, and all you've lost is $200,000."

He introduces her to the head of the New York Opera Company, Herman Gottlieb (Siegfried Rumann). They bow repeatedly to each other in an extended introduction. When Gottlieb kisses her hand, Driftwood suspects that Gottlieb has stolen her rings, and he checks her fingers. Gottlieb flatters her by calling her charming and beautiful. Driftwood flares up and objects to Gottlieb's behavior: "Now listen here, Gottlieb, making love to Mrs. Claypool is my racket. What you're after is $200,000. And you'd better make it sound plausible, because, as incredible as it may seem, Mrs. Claypool isn't as big a sap as she looks. How's that for lovemaking?" Then Driftwood allows Gottlieb to romance Mrs. Claypool European-style: "All right, Gottlieb, it's your turn. You take a whack at it, but keep it clean."

Gottlieb is pleased to accept Mrs. Claypool's financing so that he can hire the famous but self-centered Italian tenor Rodolpho Lassparri (Walter Wolf King)--"the greatest tenor since Caruso." Gottlieb promises that she will receive all the credit for being a patron of the arts and sponsoring Lassparri to sing with the New York Opera Company.

Gottlieb: He will be a sensation. All New York will be at your feet.
Driftwood: Well! There's plenty of room.

When Driftwood declines to accompany them, Gottlieb leads Mrs. Claypool to his opera box to hear the Italian tenor in a performance. As they leave, Driftwood reminds Gottlieb that he saw her first: "Nix on the love-making because I saw Mrs. Claypool first. Of course, her mother really saw her first but there's no point in bringing the Civil War into this."

In his dressing room at the Milan Opera House, the egotistical and mean Lassparri berates his valet and dresser Tomasso (Harpo Marx), whom he has found trying on one of his clown costumes. Tomasso rips off the clown costume and is wearing another costume underneath, a naval outfit. Beneath that is a third costume, a dress with a close-fitting bodice, full skirt and short full sleeves. His fourth and final outfit is his natural clothing underneath everything else. Lassparri orders Tomasso out of the dressing room and fires him, beating and whipping him out the door. But then Lassparri acts nicely toward Tomasso when he sees young soprano singer Rosa Castaldi (Kitty Carlisle) comforting the banished dresser on the floor.

The famous opera tenor has a romantic interest in Rosa, but she is in love with another lesser-known tenor, Riccardo "Ricky" Baroni (Allan Jones), a singer consigned to the chorus. Backstage, old friends Riccardo and Fiorello (Chico Marx) renew acquaintances, and Fiorello proposes to be the agent/manager of the struggling singer Ricky.

During the performance in the Milan, Driftwood rides around the park in an open carriage, yelling at the driver, "Hey you. I told you to slow that nag down. On account of you, I nearly heard the opera." When Driftwood arrives at the opera box to join Gottlieb and Mrs. Claypool for the performance, he cheers "Bravo, bravo..." but it is too late. The curtain has just come down. Gottlieb has connived to have Mrs. Claypool sponsor his New York Opera Company so that Lassparri can be signed to a $1,000/night contract. Driftwood complains to Gottlieb, "You're willing to pay him a thousand dollars a night just for singing? Why, you can get a phonograph record of "Minnie the Moocher" for 75 cents. And for a buck and a quarter, you can get Minnie."

Because he represents Mrs. Claypool, Driftwood wants to take a cut in the deal. He thinks to himself, "There must be some way I can get a piece of this." But he must get to the singer before Gottlieb does. Backstage after the performance, Lassparri tries to be Rosa's lover through blackmail, but she departs, leaving him empty-handed. Driftwood runs into Lassparri dressed as a clown from the opera just concluded, and he is beating and threatening Tomasso once again.

Driftwood: Hey, you big bully. What's the idea of hitting that little bully?
Lassparri: Will you kindly let me handle my own affairs? (He slaps and pushes Tomasso away.) Get out! Now, what do you got to say to me?
Driftwood: Just this. Can you sleep on your stomach with such big buttons on your pajamas?

Suddenly, Tomasso whacks Lassparri on the head with a large gavel. Smelling salts are applied to Lassparri's nose. Driftwood asks for and receives an apology. Then Tomasso hits Lassparri again just as he begins to sit up and regain consciousness. This time, Driftwood takes credit for the knockout, putting his foot on the victim's chest, adding, "Get fresh with me--eh?" He says to Fiorello, Riccardo's new manager, "We had an argument and he pulled a knife on me, so I shot him." Fiorello joins him by putting his foot up on the victim's chest too.

Driftwood cannot remember Lassparri's name, but he knows that he is looking for "the greatest tenor in the world." That phrase matches the description of Fiorello's little-known client---"the fellow that sings in the opera here." So Driftwood negotiates a contract with Fiorello, but for the wrong singer (Riccardo not Lassparri). Without questioning who he is actually signing up to sing for the New York Opera Company, Driftwood agrees to a lucrative contractual deal for himself:

Driftwood: Could he sail tomorrow?
Fiorello: You pay him enough money, he could sail yesterday. How much you pay him?
Driftwood: Well, I don't know...(muttering to himself) let's see, a thousand dollars a night...I'm entitled to a small profit...how about ten dollars a night?
Fiorello: Ten? Ten dolla- ha ha ha ha ha! I'll take it...
Driftwood: All right, but remember, I get 10% for negotiating the deal.
Fiorello: Yes, and I get 10% for being the manager. How much does that leave him?
Driftwood: That leaves him - uh, $8.00.
Fiorello: Eight dollars, huh? Well, he sends a five dollars home to his mother...
Driftwood: Well, that leaves him $3.00.
Fiorello: Can he live in New York on $3.00?
Driftwood: Like a prince. Of course he won't be able to eat, but he can live like a prince. However, out of that $3.00, you know, he'll have to pay an income tax...

The terms are agreed upon. The singer will be paid $10 a night, but as managers each of them plan to deduct 10% of the fee. That leaves the singer only $8. However, he will have to send $5 home to his mother, leaving him with only $3. Out of the remaining $3, allowances must also be made for additional income taxes:

Fiorello: Ah, there's income tax...
Driftwood: ...there's a federal tax, and a state tax, and a city tax, and a street tax, and a sewer tax.
Fiorello: How much does this come to?
Driftwood: Well, I figure if he doesn't sing too often, he can break even.
Fiorello: All right, we take it.

A NIGHT AT THE OPERA is a musical comedy, the sixth of thirteen Marx Brothers feature films. It is universally considered to be the Marx Brothers' best and most popular film, and it received critical acclaim when released. By bringing their comedy sequences, musical numbers, and love story plot up to higher standards, the film also proved to be a tremendous financial success. True to its title, the film actually includes some real opera scenes, especially from "Il Trovatore", with a duet sung by Kitty Carlisle and Allan Jones. The opera setting also allowed MGM to add big production song numbers which were one of this studio's specialties, such as the song "Alone" with the departure of the steamship, and the song "Cosi Cosa" with the Italian buffet and dancing.

One of the most hilarious movies ever made, this classic farce featuring the outrageous genius of the Marx Brothers is a chance to see some of their best skits woven together seamlessly in a story of high society, matchmaking, and chaos. In order to bring two young lovers together, brothers Groucho, Chico, and Harpo must sabotage an opera performance even as they try to pass themselves off as stuffed shirts. Featuring the classic sequence where Groucho piles as many people as possible into a ship's stateroom, A NIGHT AT THE OPERA is a wonderful zany film worth watching over and over again.

It's a grab bag of a movie that includes physical gags, verbal gags, a romantic subplot, backstage intrigue, an operatic aria, an elaborate dance number, stunts, absurdity, and sentimentality. Of course the main attraction is the patented zaniness of The Marx Brothers -- the acerbic Groucho, the mute Harpo, and the dim-witted Chico -- whose unique brand of comedy is often edgy, subversive, and even surreal. Groucho's usual anti-establishment stance also seems softened in order to give way to crowd-pleasing sentimentality. A NIGHT AT THE OPERA has some of most memorable gags in the Brothers' history. A verbal confusion with Santa Claus, a tiny room cramped with 15 people, mixing opera with baseball, and Harpo's stunts with the ropes are some of the highlights.

The cast also includes: Edward Keane (Captain), Robert Emmett O'Connor (Henderson), Harry Allen (Doorman), King Baggot (Dignitary), Edna Bennett (Maid), Stanley Blystone (Ship's Officer), Al Bridge (Immigration Inspector), Loie Bridge, Lorraine Bridges, Gino Corrado, Gennaro Curci, Olga Dane, Bill Days, Bess Flowers, Otto Fries, Bud Geary, Billy Gilbert, William Gould, and many others. Herbert Stothart composed the incidental music. George S. Kaufman and Morrie Ryskind wrote the screenplay with dialogue by Al Boasberg from a story by James Kevin McGuinness. Buster Keaton, Robert Pirosh, and George Seaton also contributed to the writing. Sam Wood directed with some help from Edmund Goulding.

The new Warner Brothers DVD of A NIGHT AT THE OPERA is encoded for Region 1 and 4, and has a clean video transfer considering the age of the film. Obviously, a video restoration has been done, as were the cases for many of recent Warner DVDs of old movies. The original mono audio is fine, save for some age-related hisses in the background. There are some momentary losses of frames in a few places, such as in the scene of Groucho riding a carriage early in the movie. However, these "jumps" exist in older video versions as well. Both English subtitles and closed captioning are present for the film's dialogues. The lyrics to the songs "Alone" and "Cosi-Cosa" are also captioned, but not subtitled. During the Verdi opera sequence, the caption simply says "(Singing in Italian)". French and Spanish subtitles are also provided, but many of the word plays are lost in translation. None of the supplements on the disc are subtitled or captioned.

Leonard Maltin provides an informative audio commentary for the film. He points out that the film was cut for its 1948 re-release in order to remove all references to Italy, which fought against America in WWII. The original opening was supposed to be a musical number showing people in Milan singing, thereby establishing the setting of the film. Although wishing to avoid analyzing the film, Maltin does try to elucidate some of the ingenious touches in the comical gags. In the famous stateroom scene, he points out the way Groucho talks at just the right moments and all the people seem oblivious to the situation are what make the scene funny. He also recounts a few anecdotes, such as the Brothers' showing up naked in producer Irving Thalberg's office at one time.

The disc includes a typical half-hour making-of featurette "Remarks on Marx, which is interesting mainly for the few minutes of appearance by Kitty Carlisle, who recalls how she was originally not allowed to sing with her own voice. A 20 minute musical short from 1937, "Sunday Night at the Trocadero," is included, and it features performances by Connee Boswell, The Brian Sisters, George Hamilton and his "Music Box Music" Orchestra, and a cameo by Groucho. The audio quality is very poor on this piece. An amusing ten-minute short "How to Sleep" from 1935, starring Robert Benchley, is also included, as well as the theatrical trailer for A NIGHT AT THE OPERA. There's also a 5-minute TV appearance by Groucho in which he recalls the naked Marx Brothers incident in Thalberg's office. In 1993, A NIGHT AT THE OPERA was selected for preservation in the United States National Film Registry by the Library of Congress as being "culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant".

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